For first time, Skyway disaster divers recall unforgettable role on tragic day

A new documentary about the 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster takes a fresh look at a dark day when 35 people were killed after a ship struck the bridge during a bad storm. 

For the first time, FDOT scuba divers Bob Raiola and Mike Betz are talking about what they saw underwater in the wreckage. 

"There was a child inside that I wasn't able to get to," Raiola says in the film. 

We talked with the 72-year-old about why he decided to break his silence after nearly four decades.

"We didn't seek the spotlight. We came out and did our job as best we could," said Raiola. "My children and grandchildren encouraged me to talk about it." 

Raiola said his experience as a Vietnam combat veteran didn't even prepare him for what he saw diving on the vehicles that plunged from the bridge, including a Greyhound bus. There was no hope of rescuing anyone alive, but Raiola and Betz pulled many bodies from the wreckage. 

The new documentary called "The Skyway Bridge Disaster" is narrated by retired FOX 13 news anchor John Wilson and is backed by attorney Steve Yerrid, who defended harbor pilot John Lerro.

Lerro was in charge of the freighter M/V Summit Venture when it struck the bridge. He was exonerated, but the accident haunted him until his death in 2002. 

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"He had glimpses of exoneration but he always looked at the tragedy as something that he blamed himself for. We proved that it was an act of God. Nothing could change the outcome," Yerrid recalled. 

Raiola says his life changed forever, too. 

"I don't think anybody that was out there or really involved will ever forget that," he added. "I know I can't."

The documentary film debuted Saturday at the Tampa Theater.